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The Case of the Disappearing Date: Playing Hard to Get

My friend Hope came over the other day seeking relationship advice. Hope’s mother set her up with a man from her work (so Hope was skeptical), but he called and they spoke on the phone for well over two hours. Not a bad start, so Hope agreed to meet him for drinks. When he walked into the bar, her jaw dropped. He was Gorgeous (yes, with a capital G). Not just the run of the mill, attractive-enough kind of man, but George Clooney caliber. Way to go, Mom!

They spoke for several hours and had a few too many cocktails. Both said that they had a great time and wanted to get together again. After giving the server his credit card, Hope used the restroom. When she returned, her date then left to do the same. She waited at the table for him to return. The server brought back his credit card for his signature. She continued to wait. And wait. And wait. After about 15 minutes, Hope called his cell phone to see if he was ok. No answer. Maybe he was sick? Maybe he passed out? She texted him. Nothing. Five minutes later, she called again and left a voicemail for him. He was nowhere to be found. She assumed he would at least return for his credit card, and to say goodbye, but he did not. What happened to him?! The next day he called and acted like nothing had happened. His sister, evidently, was “having a crisis,” and he just left because he thought the date was over. He then asked her out again.  

After hearing about her date with Houdini, I was just as baffled as Hope. She asked me whether she should go out with him again. Part of her thought it would be a bad idea, but she was also very attracted to and intrigued by him. Did she only like him because he seemed elusive and hard to get?

Many people believe that playing hard to get makes people more attractive, but research shows that it is a bit more complicated than that. A recent study1 suggests that our evaluations of romantic prospects consist of two parts: how much we want them and how much we like them. Using a speed-dating design, participants went on 5 minute blind dates with a confederate (who worked for the researchers). The confederate either played “easy-to-get” by indicating interest in the date, or “hard-to-get” by passively responding with disinterest to the date’s conversation. Participants then rated their date on how much they liked or wanted to pursue him or her. The researchers found that when we want someone, or are committed to pursuing someone, then their playing hard to get makes us want them more. Hope was already interested in Houdini before his disappearing act--now the intensity of her desire for another date had increased.

Importantly, the speed dating experiment also found that playing hard to get did not increase liking. So even if a person is psychologically committed to pursue the date, the date’s unavailability does not make them more likeable. This explains why Hope also feels like she cannot trust Houdini now and that he likely would not make a good long-term mate. 

Given that she was not interested in a long-term relationship anyway, I encouraged her to go out with him again, if only to satisfy her curiosity and see whether he really is just unreliable and erratic, or whether it was a one-time thing. I can’t wait to hear about her next date.

All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

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1Dai, X., Dong, P., & Jia, J. S. (2013). When does playing hard to get increase romantic attraction? Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0032989

Dr.  Jennifer Harman - Adventures in Dating... | Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Harman's research examines relationship behaviors that put people at-risk for physical and psychological health problems, such as how feelings and beliefs about risk (e.g., sexual risk taking) can be biased when in a relationship. She also studies the role of power on relationship commitment. Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

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Reader Comments (2)

Playing hard to get has always appeared nonsensical.

Now, this may be an aspie problem, since I struggle to read nonverbal communication, but I would invariably translate "playing hard to get" as "not interested", and thus pursuing the prospective partner makes you, at best, a pest. At this point I would give up, simply out of courtesy. It is rude to pursue someone who is not interested - even this aspie knows that.

It is, however, difficult to extrapolate from one individual to a broader population, so this may just be me. I would be interested to know if there is research that might suggest others also would have such a response.

As an aside, what happened to the credit card and, if the signature wasn't given, who ended up paying for dinner? Might this have had something to do with the male's behaviour?

September 30, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNiall

Great question- the credit card definitely was a strange part of the date- my friend interpreted it as a sign that he was somewhat interested, as he did pay the check, but not interested enough to say goodbye (and probably forgot the check due to having a few too many drinks).

I am not entirely aware of research looking at how the person playing hard to get perceives continued interest from a date. My colleagues here can maybe help with this one. However, if the dater's liking doesn't increase, but only their desire does, then the desire may make them want the "hard to get" person more. I am sure many do not act on this desire given that feelings of reciprocity are more inviting and motivating, but there are many individuals who report experiencing unrequited love at some point in their lives.

So, if the dater acts on his or her's increased desire, this may push the target away more (lack of interest becomes more obvious), but this makes them more desirable- my guess is that this may be what leads to unrequited love (e.g., http://www.nytimes.com/1993/02/09/science/pain-of-unrequited-love-afflicts-the-rejecter-too.html?pagewanted=all&src=pm) but I would love to hear other ideas on this one!

September 30, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJennifer Harman
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